Retired in Rome Journal: Porchetta sandwich the one great escape from Rome in July
FRASCATI, Italy — July sucks.
It does. I hate it. No month is worse. It’s the traveler’s equivalent of the nagging back-seat driver, the sweaty guy on the plane next to you or the flea-bag hotel you got stuck in because the only other decent hotel in the rat-infested Third World way station you had to travel through lost your reservation. Nearly everywhere in the world sucks in July. Europe is too crowded, Asia is too hot, the Caribbean is too rainy and the Southern Hemisphere is too cold. Only four places in the world are worth traveling to in July: Scandinavia (where you get near 24 hours of daylight), Canada/Alaska (where the outdoors activities that month are hard to match), Mongolia (which, for 10 other months, is an icebox) and Colorado (which I left six months ago and right now long for my cool, breezy balcony overlooking the Rockies as I fight the 90-degree temperatures and 60-percent humidity of Rome.)
Even as a sportswriter, I thought July should be erased from the calendar. It marks the dog days of baseball, the start of laborious NFL training camps and a parade of cliches from college football media days. I loved the Tour de France but by the time I reached Paris I was as tired as the cyclists. (Actually, that’s not a fair comparison. The cyclists weren’t drinking.)
This July in steamy Rome I was just going to sit on my terrace and eat fruit. However, I had a craving. When you have a food itch in Italy it’s impossible not to scratch it. It’s so easy. Go to your local outdoor market, trattoria or street vendor. Pasta. Pizza. Gelato. It’s like scratching your elbow.
Sunday I did the scratching about 15 miles southeast of Rome. The town of Frascati is tucked into the Albani Hills, where the Ancient Roman aristocracy would go to escape Rome’s hot summer days. Spectacular villas dating back to the 16th century cover Frascati, all looking like aging movie sets with huge facades, expansive front lawns and elaborate gardens. Popes, cardinals and Roman nobles built all these basically as status symbols. You’ve heard of keeping up with the Joneses? This was keeping up with the popes. Villa Aldobrandini stands watch from atop a big hill, its yellow, five-story baroque edifice and giant garden in front making it look more like a museum than a weekend getaway.
Sightseeing, however, wasn’t on my agenda. Eating was. I had been called to Frascati by a piece of meat so succulent that it has been the center of celebrations around Rome for nearly 700 years.
Porchetta (por-KET-ah) is a suckling pig stuffed with rosemary, garlic and fennel, among other yummy herbs and spices, then roasted on a spit for six to eight hours. It’s then cut into chunks and placed between two thick slices of fresh Italian bread. It’s the ultimate panino (or, as Americans insist on calling them, panini). It was invented in the 15th century — although legend has it that Emperor Nero liked eating porchetta as much as Christians — around the time of the Renaissance. It was when Italy was emerging from a great economic abyss and learned how to celebrate again. The porchetta became the focus of many feasts. While the porchetta was first devoured in nearby Ariccia, Frascati has become the place to eat suckling pig today.
It’s not hard to find. I walked up the steep staircase from the tiny train station and wound my way to the aptly named Piazza del Marcato. It’s a small, shady, tree-lined, cobblestone piazza with stands all advertising porchetta and Frascati’s famous, crisp white wine. I ignored a yapping Romanian immigrant nearly begging me to sit down at her stand and went straight to a corner establishment named La Pizzicheria. It’s crude tables and chairs were filled with locals and tourists alike.
After placing my order, an elderly woman with biceps like a middle linebacker took a razor sharp knife and walked outside. At a giant carcass of maroon meat that was a snorting pig the day before, she started carving away fat chunks of white meat and crispy, golden skin. She slapped it into a hard roll, put it on a paper plate and sat it on my table next to my sweating can of ice-cold Peroni beer.
Italian bread doesn’t make for good sandwiches. The crust is harder than some of the villas’ concrete foundations. What I do is take off the top slice and eat it like an open-faced sandwich. The meat, tenderized by the seasonings, had this spectacular salty tang to it. In every bite you could taste the rosemary and salt and fennel deep into the flesh. The crispy skin tasted like a hard cracker that screamed for a piece of Grana Padano cheese. Even the bits of fat added a salty touch to it.
On the health food scale, porchetta probably ranks somewhere around tiramisu and cured lard but on the flavor meter few dishes are better at whiling away a hot Italian afternoon. OK, maybe July doesn’t suck all the time.
You just need to know where to go.